Thursday, May 26, 2016

BELVA PLAIN: She Dared to Change the Face of Jewish Novels

In recognition of Jewish American Heritage Month, I want to share the incredible literary journey of third-generation Jewish American author, Belva Plain (1915-2010). Ms. Plain has been quoted as saying she wrote her first novel, Evergreen, because she’d had her fill of stereotypical Jewish characters who failed to reflect the reality of Jewish life. Published when she was 62, Evergreen became a New York Times bestseller and remained at the top of that coveted list for 41 weeks. During the balance of her 95 years, she penned 22 more novels, all written in longhand, 20 of which also became NYT bestsellers. More than 30 million of them were in print in 22 languages when she died.

Belva Plain graduated with a degree in history from Barnard College and had her first short story published in Cosmopolitan shortly thereafter. She continued to write and submit short pieces to help support her husband's ophthalmology studies until the birth of her three children, after which she devoted her time and energy to raising her family. Only when they had grown and had children of their own did she return to her pen and pad and begin her career as a novelist.

Her books covered a gamut of subjects. Some were historical; Crescent City, for example, takes place in New Orleans during the Civil War years. Others depicted the lives of Jewish people in Europe during the 1930s and 40s. A number of them, however, were contemporary in nature. The 5-book saga of the Werner family is both historical and contemporary; Evergreen, Golden Cup, Tapestry, Harvest, and Heartwood delve deeply into the multigenerational lives, relationships, and secrets of husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, and others of the Werner clan.

Ms. Plain was a master at creating well-rounded characters of depth, characters as noble and as imperfect as we all are, characters who make good decisions and bad—exploring their lives and relationships with a powerful magnifying glass not often utilized by modern authors. She also
tackled sensitive topics that touch many today: Blessings – adoption, Promises – divorce, The Carousel – sexual abuse of children. In all of them, passion abounds; but she steered away from graphic sex scenes.

Her last book, Heartwood, was published after her death. Fittingly, it comes full circle, closing her prolific writing career with the final chapters of the Werner family saga.
Belva Plain was the first author whose books inspired me to write. I loved her feisty characters who rose up from the pages of her stories and invited me into their world. They were so real, so human that I could relate to them as though they were my friends and neighbors.

Do you have a favorite author who inspired you to write? If so, please share with us.

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at


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  2. I love hearing about people who get published for the first time after 50, about authors I've never heard of (but apparently should have) who have nonetheless written New York Times Bestsellers, and about people who find a path through literature to show us a culture beyond the stereotypes. These things all give me hope. I'm also in awe of authors who write their entire manuscripts longhand, something I can never imagine myself doing - but wow. Thanks for sharing this author with us, Linda.

  3. You're welcome, Cara. I love this lady's stories. She's always provided me with a wonderful read that enriched my understanding of people and cultures that are outside my experience.

  4. Me, too. I also love that she started writing novels at almost the same age I did. That's encouraging -- there's hope for me.

  5. Like Cara, I have not read any of these books, but after this wonderful write up about Belva I will do so immediately.

    To answer your question, several authors inspired me to write, most notably John Steinbeck. He was a master at creating memorable characters who were so totally human they could have been real people, and I wanted to to that with my stories.

  6. Enjoy the stories, Maryann. Her characters have a way of entwining themselves around your heartstrings.

  7. It's an inspiring story, one that keeps me, a writer well past 50, going. But, even more than her story, I love her books and the characters she created.

  8. I, too, am well past 50. The fact that she wrote into her 80s and even into her 90s inspires me because I'm getting there much faster than I wish. :-)

  9. I read Belva Plain so many years ago, I can't remember which novels I read. Being Jewish, she portrayed the culture and drew the reader to a deeper understanding of people some readers had never known, even in the modern era. Nice to see her revived on this blog. Thank you, Linda.


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